When Christmas singers bring tidings of joy – and other emotions

Yulenight serenade – Frank McNally on a mixed blessing of Christmases past

What would George Bernard Shaw have made of Tom Waits’s voice, howling like a drunken hobo? Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

What would George Bernard Shaw have made of Tom Waits’s voice, howling like a drunken hobo? Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

One December night in the 1880s, the writer Jerome K Jerome was disturbed by carol singers on the street below his flat in Chelsea. It was common practice then for seasonal musicians called “waits” to serenade people in their homes at night and call back next day, expecting financial expressions of gratitude.

But Jerome didn’t like the Christmas waits, even at their best, and he thought these ones were just young men making noise. So rather than endure the custom stoically, he decided to turn his light off, open the window quietly, and without giving his position away, “fling coal at them”.

There were about a dozen targets, only half visible in the murk, but “they were a compact little group, and with average luck I was bound to hit one of them”. Unfortunately, when after 20 attempts, he finally elicited a yelp below, it turned out to be one of his neighbours: “To my horror, it was the man at [number] Eighty-eight, an Irish gentleman, a journalist like myself.” The neighbour had gone out to complain, only to be caught in friendly fire.

Jerome acknowledged that others, less jaded by Christmas than he, welcomed the waits: that he had seen Hark the Herald Angels Sing, “wheezily chanted by fog-filled throats, and accompanied, hopelessly out of tune, by a cornet and a flute, bring a great look of gladness to a work-worn face”. But he and his neighbour were far from alone in their distaste.

George Bernard Shaw was similarly afflicted, and had the added torture of being a professional music critic with a finely tuned ear. Thus a comment in his 1889 diary:

“The only music I have heard this week is waits; to sit up working until two or three in the morning and then – just as I am losing myself in [sleep] – to hear Venite Adoremus welling forth from a cornet English pitch, a saxhorn Society of Arts pitch (or thereabouts), and a trombone French pitch, is the sort of thing that breaks my peace and destroys my goodwill towards men”.

Howling

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

As for the original waits, they were, even in Shaw’s time, a vestige of former days. The name originated with night watchmen of earlier centuries, who sounded a horn to mark the passing hours. Royal courts and municipal corporations employed such waits to “pipe the watch”, and the profession evolved to form bands that played at civic functions or Christmas. Hence the freelance, decadent phase of the tradition witnessed by GBS and Jerome.

‘Thomasing’

According to Brewer’s Dictionary, “Thomasing” was the once-common practice of collecting gratuities – or payment in alcohol – from employers. December 21st was this also known as Mumping Day, from a word meaning to “cheat or sponge on others”. And to underline the mixed reputation of the 19th century waits, they too were called “Mumpers”.

But the waits had their admirers, even among writers. The American Washington Irving describes spending Christmas Eve 1820 in an English country house where, like Shaw, he was about to turn in when the serenaders arrived. Unlike Shaw, he was enchanted:

“I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly.

“The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened -– they became more and more tender and remote and, as they gradually died away, my head sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep.”

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